The Hall of Fame voting deadline is fast approaching, as ten-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America must submit their ballots by midnight on Wednesday. Candidates must be named on 75 percent of the ballots cast to gain induction into Cooperstown, with the voting results to be announced on January 12.
The most interesting of the 23 names on the ballot this year are Rickey Henderson and Mark McGwire. While both players were on the Athletics‘ last World Series-winning team in 1989, the similarities end there, at least when it comes to the expected outcome of the voting. Henderson will likely be a near-unanimous choice; he holds the all-time records in runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406), and he posted a .401 career on-base percentage while hitting 297 home runs. On the other hand, McGwire seems to have little chance of receiving a favorable vote in his second year on the ballot. As one of the most visible players from the Steroids Era, he garnered just 23.5 percent of the vote last year, despite hitting 583 career home runs and having a .394 on-base percentage and .588 slugging percentage.
As manager of that 1989 World Series Athletics team, and of the Cardinals in ’98 when McGwire set what was then the major league home-run record by hitting 70, Tony La Russa has an interesting perspective on both players.
La Russa has long been an ardent McGwire supporter, and in giving his take on why his former first baseman should be in the Hall of Fame, he said that he believes McGwire showed a great deal of integrity by walking away from the $30 million owed him over the final two years of his contract when he abruptly retired following the 2001 season after finishing with a line of .187/.316/.492, with 29 home runs in 364 plate appearances. “He walked away from it because he didn’t feel like he could play to that level,” La Russa said. “That, to me, shows a certain amount of integrity for the sport, for self-respect and everything. Now, our guess is that a whole lot of guys, just being normal, would have figured some way to have either talked to the organization and got a buyout, like for $5 million instead of $30 million, or just gone ahead and played less than their best and collected a check for two years. Do you think that’s a good sign of character, to walk away from $30 million if you didn’t think you could play to that level? How would you take that decision and not make sense of it?”
La Russa understands that McGwire’s legacy is threatened by suspicions that he used performance-enhancing drugs, and that while showing integrity in one aspect of his life, he has made questionable moves in another. “I’m just saying that the fact that he walked away from that money has been under-discussed and under-publicized,” La Russa said. “I know I have not discussed it, and I think it is a hellacious sign of the type of person he is.”
La Russa has no doubt that Henderson will be elected, acknowledging that while McGwire and Jose Canseco may have generated the majority of headlines as the Athletics went to three straight World Series from 1988-90, Henderson was actually the best player on those pennant-winning teams. “He was dominant,” La Russa said. “When the other team had a one-run lead in the ninth inning, he was the one guy they didn’t want to face. He was really, really good and he was a marked man. Everyone tried to stop him and he still succeeded. He got on base with his tiny strike zone. Throw it in there and he would hit it. If you didn’t, he’d walk. Either way, he stole second. He took care of himself and played in the major leagues for 25 years.”
Henderson developed a reputation for being selfish and for being a bad teammate during his career, but La Russa claims that the perception did not match the reality. “He’s probably one of the best teammates of about any superstar you’re going to find,” La Russa said. “His teammates really enjoyed him. He wasn’t one of those guys who was arrogant and separated himself. The guys all walked in the clubhouse, and Ricky was right in the middle of the domino games and messing around. I don’t think that part of him is known publicly a lot. He was always a dynamic figure, and his grammar sometimes got him in trouble, but he was a much better teammate than some of the guys who get publicity and are really kind of phony about it. Ricky was, overall, a popular teammate.”
McGwire, who has gone into seclusion since his retirement, still has an open invitation from La Russa to rejoin the Cardinals as a special instructor. La Russa is hoping that he may drop by during spring training in Jupiter, Florida in February. “He was on his way last spring, and then had an issue and couldn’t make it,” La Russa said. “He was within a week of coming to camp. His two young sons are demanding a lot of his time, and he’s having a great time being around them. It’s still the same, though. Our door is open to him.”
The Boston Red Sox are the most obvious losers in Mark Teixeira‘s decision to sign an eight-year, $180 million contract with the Yankees. The switch-hitting first baseman had been atop Boston’s winter wish list, but instead he’ll be facing them regularly in the American League East while playing for their fiercest rival. The Red Sox reportedly dropped out of the bidding at eight years and $168 million.
While it remains to the be seen if Teixeira will swing the balance of power in the AL East to the Yankees after they had failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last season-remember, too, that the Rays won the division-the team that could be hurt most by the signing is the Nationals, who had the worst record in the major leagues in 2008. Fresh off of a 59-102 finish, they had reportedly offered Teixeira $185 million over eight years, and were willing to increase the bid to $200 million if he had given them the chance.
Instead of gaining some much-needed credibility in the Beltway by signing the local kid who had grown up in Severna Park, Maryland, the Nationals wound up being the runners-up, despite having outbid the Yankees. “It’s disappointing, but not entirely unexpected when you’re going up against the Yankees and the Red Sox,” Nationals president Stan Kasten told Tom Boswell of the Washington Post. “I’m glad we pursued it, because Teixeira was unique in terms of what this franchise needs.”
It is generally assumed that the money the Nationals had earmarked for Teixeira will go back into the bank, and that general manager Jim Bowden will return to trolling for second-tier players on the free-agent market. However, Kasten insists that the Nationals are serious about trying to improve. “We’re determined to do more and be better in ’09,” he said. “We’ve already been looking at every option every day, not just Teixeira. His signing may start other moves in the industry. Now we know what the Yankees can pay. Now let’s see what everybody else can pay.”
Meanwhile, the Yankees have spent $423.5 million on free agents this winter; they have also signed left-hander CC Sabathia for seven years and $161 million, and right-hander A.J. Burnett for five years and $82.5 million. While that has led some owners, including the usually progressive-thinking Mark Attanasio of the Brewers, to reprise the call for a salary cap, the Yankees are not apologizing. Club president Randy Levine told Michael Schmidt of The New York Times that the entire sport benefits when the Yankees go to the ATM. “We are usually in the top of road attendance and we get some of the highest television ratings, both when we play national games, and when we visit other teams,” Levine said.
The Yankees are also willing to pay a penalty for having a high payroll in the form of the luxury tax, which is redistributed to lower-revenue franchises. The Yankees paid a $26.9 million tax last season; the Tigers, who were the only other team that exceeded the $155 million payroll threshold that triggers the tax, paid $1.3 million. “We follow all the rules of baseball, we pay millions of dollars to other teams, and we are essential to the revenues generated by Major League Baseball and its network and other entities,” Levine said.
Levine also said that the Yankees do not plan to curb their spending now that Hank and Hal Stienbrenner are running the club after their father, George, officially gave up control of the franchise earlier this year. “The philosophy of George Steinbrenner, which has been continued by Hal and Hank, is that the Yankees are a sacred trust to their fans, and they believe in continually reinvesting in the team rather than reinvesting in themselves,” Levine said.
The Giants finished 72-90 in 2008, and have not had a winning season in four years, but they’re talking like contenders after signing left-hander and future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson to a one-year, $8 million contract. The Giants have also added shortstop Edgar Renteria as a free agent this offseason, along with left-hander Jeremy Affeldt and right-hander Bob Howry for the bullpen. “I think we’ve got a chance now to make a run at this division,” Giants GM Brian Sabean said.
The NL West was the weakest division in the major leagues last season. The Dodgers won it with an 84-78 record, and considering that no other team in the division has made a major move this winter, Johnson sees the Giants making a run at the title as well, saying that the possibility of pitching in the postseason was the reason for his signing, rather than his having grown up in Livermore, California and suddenly becoming nostalgic at 45. “The NL West has never been labeled one of the strongest divisions,” Johnson said in a conference call with reporters. “For that reason, joining the San Francisco Giants with what they already have on their roster leads me to believe it should be an exciting year in the NL West. I don’t think anybody right now can pick who’s going to win based on their roster, but the Giants are as deep and have as much potential as any team.”
The Giants believe Johnson will strengthen a rotation that already includes two of the better young pitchers in the game in Tim Linceum, who won the NL Cy Young Award last season, and Matt Cain. Johnson had 3.5 SNLVAR last year for the Diamondbacks. “We still feel he is as intimidating a pitcher as there is in the National League and in baseball,” Sabean said. “This really sets the tone for what we’re trying to do with a pitching staff that we’ve improved over the course of the offseason. With this acquisition, we’re in position to have one of the deepest staffs, if not the deepest staff, in the National League.”
While Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson has challenged management to make more of a commitment to winning, catcher Ryan Doumit has no problems with ownership after signing a three-year, $11.5 million contract this past week that buys out his three years of eligibility for salary arbitration. The deal could be worth $27 million over five years if the Pirates choose to exercise club options for 2012 and 2013.
The Pirates began what is seemingly their 1,000th rebuilding project last July when they traded outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, but Doumit insists that this rebuild will ultimately have a more positive outcome than the others. “I signed this contract because I’m excited about what the future holds for the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Doumit said. “I really believe great things are going to happen here, and I want to be a part of it. I know our fans have heard that same old song and dance before, but things are different this time. We know we can compete. We know we have a better team than our record [67-95] showed last season. There are a lot of guys who know they did not have good years last season. They are coming to spring training with the idea there is going to be hell to pay. You’re going to see a much better team next season and into the future.”
Doumit feels that the biggest turnaround will come from a pitching staff that had the highest ERA in the NL last season with a 5.10 mark. He is particularly confident that left-hander Tom Gorzelanny and right-hander Ian Snell will both have bounce-back seasons in 2009, after they reported to spring training out of shape last February and then pitched through elbow pain. The duo combined for 2.3 SNLVAR last season, a sharp drop from 10.4 in 2007. “They know what happened last season and are upset about it,” Doumit said. “You’re going to see those guys come to spring training in top condition, and they’re going to have really good years. They both are going to have a chip on their shoulders because they realize they have to prove themselves again, and they will, because they have a lot of talent.”
AL Rumors and Rumblings: In the aftermath of losing Teixeira and giving up first baseman Casey Kotchman in a trade with the Braves to acquire him last July, the Angels say they are comfortable going with Kendry Morales at first base next season. They’ll now make closer Brian Fuentes their top free-agent target. … The Athletics would like to sign Jason Giambi to be their designated hitter, but they also have interest in Bobby Abreu and Garret Anderson on the open market. … The Orioles are eyeing free-agent left-hander Mark Hendrickson. … Sammy Sosa, who last played with the Rangers in 2007, insists that he is not retired and is hopeful of being in someone’s spring training camp come February. … Reliever Akinori Otsuka, who sat out last season following elbow surgery, should be ready to pitch by opening day, and his two former major league clubs, the Rangers and Padres, are among those interested in signing him as a free agent.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Pirates have jumped into the sweepstakes for free-agent outfielder Rocco Baldelli, joining the Red Sox, Reds, Phillies, and Rays. … The Cubs have interest in a pair of free-agent relievers from Japan, left-hander Shigeki Noguchi and right-hander Ken Kadokura, and will also give some spring training starts to Jeff Samardzija, who was a rookie sensation working out of the bullpen last season. … The Marlins are willing to trade shortstop Robert Andino, who is out of minor league options.